Friday, 30 December 2011

Silent Running

Not for the first time in my week away from work I wake and think: Shall I try and start jogging today? Nah.

From about March/April to September/October I cycle a lot - often on a Sunday morning or as a less stressful way of getting to and from work than public transport - but once the nights draw in it becomes far to dangerous: most car drivers will happily kill a cyclist to shave thirty seconds off their journey as it is, so the danger of the darkness is just too much for this frail Pixie to risk.

I try and walk at lunch times, or sometimes I walk the three miles or so from my house to the minibus for work - but the truth is that it's during the winter that I miss Gym membership the most.  The grim feeling of wanting to be anywhere else when you go in slowly being replaced by a feeling of achievement, the regularity of exercise, the amusement of not being able to get on a machine during January-February whilst the New Years Resolutioners slowly fade away: the whole man thing of never, under any circumstances, meeting the eyes of anyone else in there (in much the same way as we would never start a conversation at a urinal)

And yet every morning I have woken and thought "nope,  not today" when it comes to running - and the only reason I can give you is the embarrassment factor.

The truth is that I'm just too self conscious to run in public.  In the gym there are lots of other flabby blokes desperately trying to persuade themselves that an hour in the gym once a week will miraculously rid them of their food baby.  Out in public - well, that's a different thing.

For one thing: anyone who has ever run on a treadmill and then run on the street will  be able to tell you that it is an entirely different thing - the impact of the street is much harder for one.

Secondly there is the issue of the local wildlife: the Greater Spotted Pillock (latin name Moronicus Stupidicus), known to all runners by its mating call of "Oi mate, don't have a heart attack" - that person who has never done a day's exercise in their life and yet still feels able to comment on your fatigue when you return from a forty mile bike rid covered in sweat.  As anyone will know it is completely impossible to stop running in front of one of these creatures, and equally one will always manage to appear at the moment where you most need to stop for fear of puking up your lower intestine (IE forty yards outside your front door in my case)

Running in a group or with someone else might be a solution - but the only person I know that might be interested lives too far away to be practical and then there comes the problem of what happens when they are able to keep up running and you are not. 

Also my experience of cycling with others has not enamoured me towards group participation.  Some years ago I joined a group that I still affectionately refer to as The Nutters - who would think of nothing more than cycling a round trip of sixty miles every Sunday morning to a grim tea shop that served scum laced hot beverages before cycling back at a steady pace just faster than most people find comfortable.  Don't get me wrong: it was good training and I got very fit as a result, but it wasn't my idea of fun.

So I guess my options are to get over my feeling of self-awareness or take up some other kind of exercise where I am able to feel less self aware.

Rock climbing anyone?

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Pixie Christmas Message

Well as those of you who read my blog will know it's traditional for us Pixies to try and outdo Her Majesty in the putting people to sleep stakes.

Yes it's true - every Christmas around Britain Men (And Women) Of A Certain Age insist that we MUST watch our monarch's Christmas greeting to her nation at 3pm and then promptly fall asleep for the entire duration - unless someone tries to change channel when they instantly wake and say "Oi!  I was watching that!!"

This year many of my attempts at Christmas Mesi (surely a better plural than messages?) have been scuppered by unduly complicated technology - I had hoped to record my version of Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow - however the little gremlins inside my computer have been dead set against it.

So what can I do instead?  Well there are several other traditions around Christmas

1) The groan-worthy joke.

I say, i say, i say - what's round and angry
I don't know - what is round and angry?
A vicious circle

2) The pointless but nevertheless fascinating fact
Santa's Reindeer are all girls.  We know this because male reindeer shed their antlers in winter, and yet all of Santa's, including Rudolph, have theirs

3) The sudden glow of kindness towards others
Merry Christmas all my readers - and especially to those blogs that I wouldn't miss for the world

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas Tunes: A Saxophone Experience

I have to admit that, as of recent, I've been growing rather weary of my public speaking club. 

Too much content, too much focussing on goals and rushing everything through has begun to take its toll on this basically quite laid back Pixie.

The main thing for me, however, has been the quick turn around: I'm in the office every Wednesday and it's a busy day for me.  When I finish it takes me nearly an hour to get home and eat and then straight back out to set up the room - so if the evening is equally frenetic (as it has been) I often find myself thinking about just staying home instead.

Last night, however, we went to visit our sister club - one that myself and Herself have been supporting for some time as they struggle towards becoming a fully fledged club of their own.  This one is even further away, so an even quicker turn around - but I had another reason for being slightly stressed on this occasion.

For those of you who don't already know I have been playing alto saxophone for nearly two years now and despite struggling with high notes (which have been to attract passing bats with their atonality), notes suddenly being called different things in the same piece of music (It's either c sharp or d flat - make your bloody mind up Mozart!) and rapid finger movements there have been some signs of improvement.

And so, with the festive season upon us, i decided to offer my services as saxophonist during the half-time break and had been practicing several christmas tunes to this effect.

Not being traditional these were not carols - but were:
 Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (one of my favourites),
Winter Wonderland (mostly quite easy until the very, very difficult bit)
Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow (another of my favourites and also from one of my favourite Christmas films (see point 1 at the end))
Santa Baby (quite difficult, but fun to try playing)

This was to be my second public appearance, not counting long suffering friends and family.  There had been some discussion about doing this at my own club, but for various reasons I never quite got around to organising it.

So we ate quickly, loaded up the car and drove up the quite heavily congested motorway, fully expecting for no one to be at the meeting - what with Christmas, seasonal illnesses and confirmed absenteeism.

We couldn't have been more wrong - we arrived to find a room full of first time visitors.  So now I was not only speaking at the evening (on the Science of Santa (see point 2 for a few of the fascinating facts)), not only was i organising the impromptu speaking session in the second half (on the theme of that Festive Favourite - The Sound Of Music (shown in the UK every alternate Christmas and Easter since 300BC) - but I was playing my saxophone not to a room of people who knew me and would forgive the odd terminal mistake (IE where i killed a note entirely), but to a room of total strangers.

So break came and due to the immense heat in the room my saxophone reed was completely dry and needed some effort to warm up before it would even make a sound.  Finally I launched into Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and immediately went wrong.  Starting again I just about made it through with only a tiny error and received some polite applause from two of the guests.  Deciding not to risk life and limb any further than necessary I switched books and tried Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow - for which the timing of some of the notes can best be described as "imaginitive", but I think I got away with.

Deciding to quit whilst I was behind I packed up my saxophone and returned to my seat with no further recognition of my efforts - other than a brief conversation with another newcomer who, as it turns out, is currently learning the soprano sax. 

Still - any performance that you can walk away from with all limbs still intact is generally considered a success.  Only my parents to go now...

1) My favourite Christmas film - Die Hard (it's set at a Christmas party people!!)
2) Fascinating Facts about Santa:
Santa has approximately 378 million children (approx 3.5 per household) to visit - dependent on naughty/nice quotient

If Santa started delivering gifts at 10pm on Tonga and finished at 6am in the Samoa Islands he would have 36 hours to complete his journey due to the International Date Line - that's still 822.6 visits per second

Santa could potentially use Ion Shielding, as per Star Trek, to prevent his Reindeer from being vaporised by the immense pressure.  Dr Ruth Bamford of the Rutherford Appleton Laborotory in Oxfordshire has been quoted as saying:
“We now have actual measurements that show a ‘hole’ in the solar wind could be created in which a spacecraft could sit, affording some protection from ‘ion storms’, as they would call them on Star Trek.”

Saturday, 17 December 2011

IPAPIASM: With Apologies To Noddy Holder

Sometimes an opportunity is too good to miss, so when I saw that a lot of my fellow bloggers were taking part in something called International Put A Poem In A Shop Month I knew it was something that I had to be a part of, and I knew exactly the right poem.

It's very much in the ethos of the Punk movement to take one of your poems and randomly put it in a shop on display.  To be honest I felt quite criminal doing it, but I thought it would be worth the effort.

I originally wanted to put this on display along with the seasonal CDs, but there were too many shoppers and too many staff pricing things, so it ended up in the Bargain Bin of DVDs next to a widescreen TV and a boxset of the Star Wars series.

For those of you that can't read it the poem is published below. 

Some of the joke of the poem may be lost on the transatlantic audience, unless dodgy seventies rockers are suddenly the in thing in the USA, so just in case I've put the link below to the original. 

One of the better Christmas songs - just a shame that it's played so often...

Santa SLADE The Reindeer
(With Apologies To Noddy Holder)

Are you camping out in Tesco’s every night?
Are you watching all your money wave bye bye?
Are you sick and tired of adverts, telling you to shop?
Are you wondering “will the madness ever stop?”

Was it only just September yesterday?
Will the credit card man take your house away?
Are you sick of Christmas music, is there nothing on TV?
Except The Sound Of Music and Jaws 3

So here it is, bloody Christmas and the shopping’s never done
Wishing it was over, but it’s only just beg-u-un

So here it is, bloody Christmas, guess you’ve heard this one before
Lost sight of Jesus, what the hell is it all fo-o-or?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Little Bit Funny?

A man gets on board a bus carrying a cello.  One of the passengers shouts, 'Hey mate, bet you wish you'd learned the piccolo instead!"

As in life and in music, and despite what people tell you, size really does matter. 

There are, in the pantheon of musical instruments, those instruments that are considered "cool" (the drums, the electric guitar), "uncool" (the bass, the xylophone and the triangle)

There are also instruments that, when placed in the wrong hands, can only be considered to be the weapons of Satan - for instance if I am ever swept to power then one of my first rules will be the banning of Recorders and Violins to the under-6 age group (one of my favourite moments of all time was when a local news reporter cut back to the studio from a school recorder band with the comment, "Hmmm, sounds like my pet cat singing".  He later had to apologize, but I'm still laughing over 15 years later)

And then there are the sadly maligned.  The instruments that have never, in their entire lives, done so much of an iota's worth of harm to their fellow man.  Never have their squeaks caused winces amongst the collected parents of Class 2B, never have they been used by the local Scout Group to blow your ear drums into the next street - and yet they find themselves the instrument (groan) of mirth.

Like the aforementioned cello player on the bus - or the harpist (how the hell do you transfer one of those from place to place?  I'll tell you how: with great bloody difficulty - I've seen it done.   Those women may look thin and angelic, but I'd fancy their chances in the boxing ring with those sorts of muscles)

And then there's the Ukelele - the shrunken Hawaiian guitar.  Best known in the UK thanks to wartime movie star George Formby (although technically what Formby played was a Banjolele, but that's another story)

For some reason it has aquired an air of comedy.  Why is this?  Is it a size issue?  Well, the piccolo is very small and not generally considered laughable (other than in reference to as a preference to carrying a cello on the bus)

Is it as a legacy from George himself, known for his innuendo-filled lyrics and cheeky character?  It's hard to imagine now that a gawky lad from Lancashire whose catchphrase was "He he, it turned out nice again" could have single-handedly swayed the course of the Second World War (sorry USA, you guys helped a bit it's true - but it was George that did it.  Just watch the films if you don't believe me (see end explanation))

Is it the sound?  Well actually, it makes quite a nice sound - assuming you can get your suddenly huge fingers squeezed into the tiny frets.

Maybe that's what it is then - it's the fact that the Uke is played by people who are disproportionately large in representation to the tininess of the instrument?

Well, whatever the reason, I recently found myself in a local musical instrument shop and, being of an inquisitive nature, I succumbed to temptation and bought myself a little Uke.  Aside from the small (pun not intended) problem of squeezing my fingers into place I have to say that it's making some nice noises and as I already play the guitar it was relatively easy to start pushing out some simple tunes fairly quickly.

Well, what else can I say?  He he - it turned out nice again!

George Formby Films:
A general plot of a George Formby, and indeed Norman Wisdom film was that George, or Norman, would end up somewhere dressed in army uniform (despite being a civilian - something that would actually have got them shot) and would, through a series of humerous vignettes, end up behind enemy lines, sing a few happy songs and change the course of the war

This is an over exaggeration of his film plots, but not by much.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

NaNoWriMo - What I Learned This Time

It's very hard to explain to someone who is not a writer why on earth you would want to put yourself through something like NaNoWriMo.

For those of you that don't already know NaNoWriMo is NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, a yearly event that challenges writers around the globe to sign up from the 1st to the 30th November to write a minimum of 50,000 words (1,666.6r, or 3-4 A4 pages per day) during that time.  The novel doesn't have to be Shakespeare when finished, nor does it have to be finished during that time.  The only rules are that you can't start writing the novel until the 1st November (although you are allowed to do planning if you so wish) and you have to write 50,000 words and submit your word count by the end of November.

I first took part in this two years ago, during November 2009.  At the time I had just finished a project that had taken 4-5 years to finish and was still stuck in endless re-writes for another two (one of which is still stuck in endless re-writes after 8 years).  I was becoming very frustrated with the whole process of writing: I was struggling a lot to get the story out partially because I was more than aware that there would be no one who was particularly interested in reading it when finished.

Anyone creative who is part of a loving but not especially creative family and circle of friends will appreciate the frustration of working for months on months on something only to pass it to a beloved person and for them to either a) not understand it or b) be unable to extend their comments beyond minor punctuation issues.

So when I heard about NatNo - I think via Blogland - I decided that it might be just the thing I needed.

It has, after all, been said by more than one writer that the one thing that a writer is unlikely to do when left alone is to do any writing.

And a funny thing happened: by sitting there every day, often with no idea what I was going to write that day, I found the ideas coming a lot easier, I found myself thinking in ways that I might not usually have done and, most importantly, I found myself freed of the endless issues that had dogged my stories - if you get stuck in a plot or character problem and you are up against a deadline to reach a certain amount of words then you have no time for going back and starting again, or for getting bogged down: you keep writing through it.  This was a great catharsis and allowed me to re-discover a love of writing that had got lost somewhere along the way.

What resulted was a fast paced, rather violent Sci-Fi romp, but it also freed me up to go back to one of the longer projects with new energy and finally finish it (this became my longest and best work to date)

Of course all of this was two years ago when I was going through a period where I had a lot of free time on my hand.  This year when I came to do it again I found that the main times I had free for writing were weekends and two evenings per week. That meant a lot of sitting in front of the computer for long periods, just plugging away.  At times I will admit that this became something of a chore, but it is a worthwhile exercise - inspiration cannot always be relied on, but exercising those brain muscles increases the chances that it will arrive sooner than later.

It also helped to know that my friend Argent was also doing the challenge - we constantly exchanged word counts and comments about problems we were facing: the fact that I knew someone out there who was rapidly catching up with my word count kept me going through some of the more difficult stages.

If I'm brutally honest about the work I did this year I would have to admit that there is a lot of running-about in search of a plot - but what did I learn this time?

Plot - when I went into NatNo last time I hadn't done any preparation, but I had a very clear idea of what my story was and what it was trying to achieve right from the start - I think that was missing this time.  I had a great start: but I hadn't completely worked out where that start led to.

NatNo forced me to keep going and be quite inventive - split the story into two parts for a while, think about the way I used language: could I expand my language?  My writing style tends to be quite focused on getting the story told and I sometimes forget to describe where we are or talk about other stuff like emotional reactions, character development etc - so although I think that was missing from this I am more aware of it now

Characters - I had a lot of what can only be "cardboard cut-out" people in my story - characters that I didn't know the first thing about and were only there to add to the body count.  Only two of the main characters, maybe as many as three or four, actually had a personality after that - so my advice to myself for next time is that your main characters in a story should always go on a personal journey and change during the story and that you should decide one or two things about your secondary characters that roughly define how they will act

Empty space - pretty much each day I was thinking "how am i going to expand this load of nonsense to be 50,000 words" - and yet I made the target with two days to spare.  I think one of the things that has often held me back as a writer is that concern that I won't be able to write something that is long enough to be called a novel, so I think that this has reminded me not to be afraid of that space on the screen that is sitting empty and flashing at you.

Finally I am glad that I did it because now I finally feel able to go back one final time to my 8-year old project.  Writing in such a focused manner for a month has left me with a few thoughts around the characters in that and their reactions that I'm hoping will be enough for me to get it back on track.

It will take me longer than a month to do this - the last long project I wrote (after my previous NatNo) took twelve months to finish the first draft, but only 3-4 for the second - and I know that if I hadn't done the project two years ago then I would never have been able to finish it.

So what next?  Well, I'm thinking NatSoWriMo, or NatAlWriMo - these are my own invention - to write as many SOngs, or an ALbum in a month

Who knows what might come out of that?

BTW - final word count: 50,108